'First Man' Review
October 15, 2018
What do we as Americans really know about Neil Armstrong? Everyone can say that he was the first man to step foot on the moon, but what else? Most of us would be left blank and stuck realizing that we know so little about one of the most important American figures of the twentieth century.
Stepping in to remedy this problem is director Damien Chazelle with his new film First Man. Instead of solely focusing on the moon landing, Chazelle decides to center the story on Armstrong. Spanning from 1961 to the 1969 landing, First Man daringly attempts to entertain and educate its audience about the trials and tribulations that one man went through in the name of human exploration.
Hot off winning the Academy Award for Best Director in 2016 with La La Land, the thirty-three-year-old Chazelle again makes his case for being one of the best directors working today. He reteams with his La La Land cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, and the results are spectacular. The imagery of the film is engrossing and stirs a wide range of emotional responses. In order to give the film a 60’s look and feel, Chazelle opts to use a more grainy camera filter rather than the traditional smooth. He also uses a multitude of handheld close-ups to try and keep the story emotional and character-driven.
As a space film, First Man more than delivers on the action and pushes the boundary on how movies can convey the overall experience of space travel. Chazelle shifts to IMAX cameras in space and fills the screen with both beauty and menace. The camera violently shakes as the rocket blasts off, engulfing us in the terrifying moment. Then everything steadies and the awe of outer space is revealed. It’s a balancing act that perfectly captures the immense danger that was involved in order to reach new heights.
Chazelle also reteams with his regular composer Justin Hurwitz, who gives a compelling soundtrack that perfectly compliments the film. The best part comes during the lunar landing scene when a constant hard-charging drum beat takes over as the only sound we hear. Even though the outcome is already known, it’s still the most nerve-wracking part of the film.
The one area where First Man struggles to make its mark is in the writing department. Josh Singer pens the script, based on the novel by James Hansen. The writing does well at establishing Armstrong in the beginning. He’s quiet and a bit standoffish, but also very loving. We see him as a family man, one who’s struggling to balance his piloting dreams with the welfare of his wife and kids.
However, after the first act, not much time is spent on developing Armstrong’s character. The rest of the film centrally focuses on the mission in a straightforward way. The years go by, but we hardly see any change in his character. This lack of an arc goes against Chazelle’s intentions and undermines the great work he does to connect us to the characters. It also restricts the core theme of the film from being achieved as very little about Armstrong is actually revealed by the end.
Marking his second time working with Chazelle, Ryan Gosling is spectacular as Neil Armstrong. Gosling plays against type and delivers a solemn and heroic performance. The camera is pressed to his face the whole time as we watch his perilous journey unfold on Earth as well as above it. Gosling controls each scene with his blank face and calmly keeps the audience connected to him.
Playing Janet Armstrong is The Crown star Claire Foy, who trades in her British accent for a Texan one. Foy provides the emotion of the film as she plays the nervous wife who just wants to see her husband come home safely. She shares some great scenes with Gosling as their characters try to cope with the dangers of attempting history.
Rounding out the A-list cast is Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, and Corey Stoll. Each one of them plays an important supporting character in Neil’s story. They all give commendable performances as they play well off of Gosling and Foy.
Boldly going where no one has gone before, Damien Chazelle has changed the way space movies should be made. His expert use of all facets of production raises the bar for the future of commercial filmmaking. The combination of his powerful directing and the outstanding performances by Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy lifts First Man off the ground and into the upper echelon of both space films and biopics.